“Motion Granted.” With those words, the Hon. Joseph Zayas of Queens Supreme Court vacated the murder conviction and dismissed the indictment against Felipe Rodriguez.
It was a triumphant end to a fight that has consumed our office since 2015 and the Innocence Project since 2007.
In all those years, Mr. Rodriguez was granted executive clemency by Gov. Andrew Cuomo based on his stellar prison record, got married, worked steadily at a hotel, helped raise two beautiful children, and was reunited with his adult son, who was just three when Felipe was wrongly convicted in 1990.
The problems with the conviction make for a long story, artfully chronicled in today’s story in the New York Daily News. To recap: the only witness implicating Felipe in the murder recanted in 2017, after he was approached on his doorstep by an investigator from the Innocence Project and Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma. Nothing else — nothing — connected Felipe to the crime, which was the brutal stabbing of a 34-year-old mother of three.
After the recantation, the Queens County District Attorney’s office undertook a two-year reinvestigation of the case. Police Commissioner James McNeil personally ordered the police department to find all the old files. When they did, top Queens Assistant District Attorney Robert J. Masters, who is scheduled to retire tomorrow, found two anomalies that called the whole investigation into question.
First, the recanting witness, who had already changed his story three times. apparently told a detective that another person was involved in the murder. If that statement had been known to the defense. Mr. Masters said in court today, it would have had a powerful, perhaps decisive effect on the proceedings.
Second, there was an issue with the police reports. There were properly numbered reports from the day of the murder, Thanksgiving 1987, until the fall of 1988. But after that — as soon as Felipe became a suspect — none of the reports are numbered. In other words, the most important steps in the investigation, the steps that led to the arrest, were not properly documented. Moreover, investigation closing reports appeared to contradict the account of the investigative actions leading to Felipe’s arrest. These reports too, if they had been turned over, would have affected the outcome of the hard-fought trial.
Based on these issues, the District Attorney’s office consented to a motion filed under New York Criminal Procedure Law Sec. 440.10 by the Innocence Project’s senior litigation counsel Nina Morrison and the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma. Present at the hearing were numerous other supporters, lawyers, judges and exonerees, including Margulis-Ohnuma client Antonio Yarbough, who was exonerated in 2014 after being framed by New York City Police Department detectives for the murders of his mother, his 12-year-old sister, and another 12-year-old girl.
Reacting to the judge’s order, Mr. Rodriguez told the New York Post that the remaining chains from his conviction had fallen: “I will be absolutely, completely free.”
Felipe Rodriguez is now universally recognized as innocent of the murder of Maureen Fernandez. Mr. Masters went so far as to apologize to Mr. Rodriguez for the state’s actions that denied him a fair trial almost three decades ago. Felipe only wishes peace and closure for the victim’s family, and looks forward to continuing to work and raise his family as a completely free man.